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Emperor Akihito

Emperor Akihito addresses the nation at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on March 16, 2011, after the powerful earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan. Photo: AP/Imperial Household Agency of Japan

The world was watching when Japanese Emperor Akihito took to the airwaves earlier this month to address his people. Akihito’s recorded response to the natural disasters that have ravaged his country was his first-ever televised speech. And though it was short and simple, it earned Akihito praise in Japan, where the emperor is still widely popular as a symbol of the nation’s royal past.

But in the United States, we don’t hear much about Emperor Akihito because, let’s face it, the reserved Japanese royal family is no headline-grabbing House of Windsor. But we wanted to know more about Japan’s low-profile emperor and the imperial line from which he descends. Here’s what we turned up:

1. They don’t call him Akihito.

In Japan, the emperor doesn’t go by his given name. Emperor Akihito was raised as Prince Tsugu and is now officially referred to as “His Majesty the Emperor” or Tennō Heika, meaning “heavenly emperor.”

After a Japanese emperor’s death, he is referred to by the name of the era over which he reigned. The emperor we call Hirohito is referred to in Japan as Emperor Shōwa. Akihito will go down in history as Emperor Heisei, which, loosely translated, means “establishing peace.”

2. His position is mostly symbolic.

Hirohito, or Emperor Showa the 124th emperor, after his enthronement ceremony in 1928.

Since the end of World War II, Japanese royalty has been almost powerless. After the war, the American military forced Emperor Hirohito to renounce his claim to divinity. Then the 1947 Japanese Constitution, written under pressure from the American government, demoted the emperor to a “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” and stripped the position of all “powers related to government.” Unlike royalty in other countries, the emperor of Japan is not even the nominal head of state.

Akihito’s actions are tightly constrained by the Imperial Household Agency, the bureaucratic apparatus that manages the affairs of the royal family. He makes only occasional public appearances, spending most of his time within the grounds of the Imperial Palace hosting important visitors and presiding over official events.

3.  He is a member of the oldest royal family in the world.

The Japanese imperial family claims descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami through Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan, who is said to have begun his rule on February 11, 660 BC. Historians have not been able to determine whether Jimmu was a real historical figure or a composite.

Emperor Komei, the 121st emperor of Japan, reigned from 1846 to 1867. He died when he was only 35.

The Imperial Household Agency has been reluctant to allow archaeologists into the imperial tombs, which are sacred sites where the emperor’s envoys pray and conduct ritual ceremonies every year. There are tombs in Japan attributed to each of the 124 emperors preceding Akihito, including Jimmu, but at present the tombs’ contents remain a mystery. Imperial officials may also be worried that excavations could confirm rumors that early Japanese rulers were of Chinese or Korean ancestry.

Emperor Akihito made history and upset some Japanese nationalists when he acknowledged a Korean ancestor during a 2001 press conference.

According to Japanese tradition, the 77-year-old Emperor Akihito is the 125th emperor in an unbroken line of hereditary succession which dates back to the reign of Emperor Jimmu. His wife, Empress Michiko, is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and, because of the relaxation of imperial household laws after World War II, the first-ever commoner to marry into the imperial family. The emperor’s son, Crown Prince Naruhito, is the heir to the Japanese throne.

4. He has been a groundbreaker in the Imperial Palace.

When the Japanese surrendered to the Allied powers at the end of World War II, Emperor Hirohito delivered a famously obtuse speech in which he declared that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

Akihito’s buttoned-up predecessors spoke a highly stylized Japanese incomprehensible to Japanese commoners. In his message to the victims of the tsunami and earthquake, the Emperor spoke formally but in modern Japanese.

In some ways, Akihito’s modern persona was decided for him. As the first new emperor to ascend to the throne since Japan’s defeat in World War II, he is the first emperor who has never been worshipped or given political power. He is the first emperor who has been allowed to marry a commoner, though it speaks to his modern mindset that he was also the first to do so.

When Akihito was crown prince, he married Michiko Shoda, a commoner, in 1959.

But Akihito has gone beyond his predecessors in his efforts to connect with the Japanese people and to serve as an ambassador to the rest of the world. In 1995, he donned a sweater and windbreaker to personally comfort victims of the Kobe earthquake. He has offended some Japanese hard-liners by offering apologies to countries wronged by Japan in the past, including those that suffered under his father’s rule during World War II.

5. He is a part-time ichthyologist.

Though Emperor Akihito studied political science at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University (briefly — he didn’t graduate), he better is known for his work in biology. As of 2007, Akihito had published 38 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals including Science and Nature. He is an honorary member of London’s prestigious Linnean Society and has been awarded the Royal Society’s King Charles II Medal, an honor for “foreign Heads of State or Government who have made an outstanding contribution to furthering scientific research in their country.” His work with the tiny goby fish (The Times called him a “world authority – perhaps the only authority – on classifying the goby fish”) was recognized in 2006 when two researchers named a new species of goby Exyrias akihito. Akihito had collected specimens of the fish and sent them to the researchers for identification.

The emperor is also listed as a collaborator on the book Fishes of Japan with pictorial keys to the species and, according to the Imperial Household Agency’s website, managed to attend “the monthly meeting of the Fish Systematics Seminar” six times last year.